From NBC's Pete Williams
A congressional candidate's statement linking the concept of separation of church and state with Adolf Hitler is getting a new round of attention, even though the man who said it has since backed away from it.
At a campaign event in April, Glen Urquhart -- a Tea Party candidate who's the GOP nominee for Congress in Delaware -- was asked about the issue and replied with a question. "Where does this phrase, 'separation of church and state' come from? Anybody know?" he asked.
When a history teacher in the audience started to answer that it came in a letter from one of the founding fathers, Urquhart said that wasn't the case.
"Actually, that exact phrase is not in Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists. He was reassuring them that the federal government wouldn't trample on their religion. The exact phrase, 'separation of church and state,' came out of Adolph Hitler's mouth. That's where it comes from. So the next time your liberal friends talk about separation of church and state, ask them why they're Nazis," Urquhart said.
Though he made the comment five months ago, it received renewed scrutiny after a You Tube video of the exchange was posted by the website Rawstory.com.
Many legal scholars have pointed out that Thomas Jefferson did, in fact, write about the concept in his letter to the Baptists in 1802, using the phrase "a wall of separation between Church & State." (Here's a link to the letter. )
Professor Eugene Volokh of the UCLA law school noted on his legal blog that the phrase was well established in the 19th century. "In American court cases alone, it dates back to 1825 (in an argument of counsel) and 1840 (in a judge's opinion). It's quite clear that the American phrase 'separation of church and state' does not at all come from Hitler. It probably pre-existed Jefferson, was likely popularized by him, and was routinely used long before the Americans ever heard of Hitler," Volokh wrote.
In the months since Urquhart made the statement, he has more or less disclaimed it, attributing it to the early steps of a novice campaigner. "Everybody in that room understood what I meant, that tyrants tend to misuse the separation of church and state," he said recently, as reported by Delaware's News Journal newspaper. "The Nazis used the same separation of church and state rhetoric for a very, very bad purpose," Urquhart said.
But was he at least right about Hitler, that he embraced church-state separation? It's a notion widely accepted on many Internet blogs.
But two historians, experts on Nazi Germany, say that's not the case.
"There was never separation of church and state under the Nazis. The two official religions of Germany -- Catholicism and mostly Lutheran Protestantism -- remained the official churches right through the period of the Third Reich," according to Prof. Richard Steigmann-Gall of Kent State University.
"During the war, when tensions grew between Nazis and the churches, particularly over the so-called 'euthanasia campaign,' Hitler privately considered an official separation of church and state. But he relied far too heavily on support from Protestant and Catholic Germans to ever take the idea seriously," he said.
Another expert on the period, Professor Robert Ericksen of Pacific Lutheran University, said the Nazis continued the Weimar Republic's practice of taxing church members and using the money to support Germany's churches. "The state paid for religious education, which was offered in all schools, and the state paid for the theological facilities as before," Ericksen said.
"Most Christians and most Christian clergy -- Protestant and Catholic -- were very enthusiastic supporters of Hitler and the Nazi cause. He promised a return to traditional values and to end the 'moral decadence' of Weimar culture," according to Ericksen.
Ericksen said some Nazi leaders saw Christianity as a rival and opposed church influence. "But Hitler never risked taking on the churches directly, whatever his own preferences might have been."